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Inspired by dreams and visions and observations of nature, Aboriginal music and ceremonies were originally handed down from one generation to the next and from family to family. Trade took ceremonies from one Aboriginal nation to another and from region to region. As those nations were displaced by European and subsequent colonizers, they carried their ceremonies and music into new regions.
Two major ceremonies, the Sun Dance and the Peyote Way, migrated from nation to nation as Aboriginal peoples faced genocide, repression and the loss of their lands in the 1800s and 1900s. The ceremonies brought strength and unity, helped with healing, and satisfied people's spiritual longings.
The Sun Dance, originally from the Prairies, is now found coast to coast in North America and as far south as Mexico. At the request of elders, the ceremony takes place for the purpose of healing and prayer. It is considered a powerful medicine.
In the early 1970s, the Deneh (Navajo) from northeastern Arizona were forced to relocate by the United States federal government, to allow mining companies to take over their land. They approached the Lakota Sun Dance chiefs in South Dakota, asking for the Sun Dance to keep the community united and strong.
The ceremony took place in the area known as Big Mountain, a stronghold of traditional Navajo life. Lakota songs were translated into Navaho for the people's use. The ceremony was not owned by the Navajo, but lent to them for healing purposes. It remained in the community for a generation.
The peyote ceremony has travelled from northern Mexico as far north as James Bay and from British Columbia to the eastern seaboard. The peyote religion was legally recognized in Canada as early as 1936. It has since become widespread among Aboriginal peoples throughout North America. There are Christian elements found within some ceremonial arrangements and harmonized singing.
The ceremony began in northern Mexico among the Huichol and Tarahuamara peoples about 7,000 years ago. People chew peyote cactus or drink a peyote tea. The cactus is a hallucinogen that leads to profound spiritual experiences.
During the 1800s, the ceremony spread north into the United States, to the Comanche and Apache peoples, then further north and west. Although some parts of the ceremony were adapted to each nation's individual language and spiritual context, the basics of the ceremony and its pattern remained unchanged and some songs continued to be sung in the original language.